Union Wins Key Election to Represent Employees at Community Services

By MANDY LOCKE

Hospital Workers Union gained a seat at the negotiation table at Martha's Vineyard Community Services Thursday evening after two-thirds of Island Counseling Center and Visiting Nurse Service professional employees voted the union into the health and human service agency during the closely watched election.

In a runaway election, 22 out of a pool of 37 eligible employees voted in favor of Service Employees International Union, Hospital Workers local 767, to represent Community Services employees. Only nine of the uncontested ballots voted against the union.

A crowd of counselors from ICC welcomed the news Thursday evening with handshakes, high fives and a few tears. The wide margin sweetened the victory.

"It's clearly a strong statement by the people who work here," ICC employee Jane Dreeben said Friday morning.

For some, the election results validated more than the complaints that led them three months ago to an organizing effort to create a bargaining unit.

"We've lived with this for so long. I'm just so thrilled we won. We succeeded in standing up for ourselves," ICC employee Amy Lilavois said.

Community Services management, which has challenged the need for a union within the agency since 19 employees of ICC filed a petition March 15, felt the blow of the election.

"We're disappointed with the results, of course, but we appreciate the attention all of staff gave this important issue," said Community Services executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch. Mr. Robinson-Lynch renewed the agency's devotion to clients through the upcoming negotiation period.

"Despite the ultimate outcome, we will and must work together to serve the community," he added.

Both management and the newly unionized employees hope Community Services clients remain immune to the internal conflict.

"We're still here to provide care for people in the community. As disruptive and painful as this has been for us, we want them to feel assured we're here," Ms. Dreeben said.

Meanwhile, everyone hopes to close the rift that has disrupted the agency during the last three months.

"We have a desire to move forward and put the painful experience of the last three months behind us. No one's interested in perpetuating the conflict. We hope to move forward and establish a contract," Ms. Dreeben said.

But concerns remain that the stormy dispute may bring an equally rough negotiation period ahead.

"We're committed to meeting the administration halfway, but I worry they won't be available to do that in good faith," Ms. Dreeben said.

In the final days before the vote, the pressure on the 37 employees involved in the union campaign escalated. Phone calls, private meetings, memorandums and brochures attempted to persuade employees to vote against the union. In the final days before the election, both management and union supporters remained confident of victory.

"It's amazing everybody hung in there," ICC employee Rob Doyle said.

"No one faltered with all the memos, with all the calls," Ms. Lilavois agreed.

The election may end the exhaustive and contentious labor dispute that tore at the edges of the Island's health and human services agency. The dispute began in March when 19 ICC employees, citing wage grievances, high staff turnover, disrespect from management and a lack of communication with administration officials, petitioned to form a collective bargaining unit. The next three months brought four days of hearings in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Boston to determine which employees were eligible to vote in the election. Wrangling over eligibility of employees continued as late as last Wednesday when the full NLRB in Washington ruled two to one not to review management's appeal of the regional NLRB decision to include four clinical supervisors in the voting pool.

Caught in the middle of the dispute were 13 employees from Visiting Nurse Services. While no one from the VNS program initiated the push for a union, their status as professionals under national labor relations laws placed them in the voting pool. Several VNS employees pushed staff and management to talk about alternatives to the union at two meetings earlier this month. While no one knows definitively who cast the nine anti-union votes in the secret election, it is believed that the bulk came from the 13 VNS employees in the voting pool. ICC employees realize the importance of reaching out to VNS staff members now represented by a union they apparently did not favor.

"We must support the people who didn't vote for it. We must reach out to them and see what their needs are," Mr. Doyle said.

ICC employees said compensation grievances, an articulated pay scale, due process and improved relations with management remain the top priorities as they prepare to enter contract negotiations with Community Services management. How those priorities translate into tangible elements within their contract is yet to be determined.

The union also plans to focus on bridgebuilding before negotiations begin.

"The campaign has polarized and isolated people. It has played on their worst fears. It may take some time for people to be open," said Rob Witherell, organizing director of the Hospital Workers Union local.

Mr. Witherell said he plans to distribute a survey to each union member to gauge contract priorities. Mr. Witherell said he must also secure accurate pay-scale information from management, the details of which remained in question. Both sides disagreed over the exact earnings of counselors within the agency.

How a nonprofit agency serving one in four Island families on a $5.5 million operating budget, already pinched by state and federal budget cuts, can carve out more money for wage increases remains a looming question, one that will be answered in upcoming negotiations.

"We understand it's a nonprofit. We know that everyone in this field is underpaid. We'd love it if we could change the whole system, but we're realistic," Mr. Doyle said. "We do, however, certainly see ways that adjustments could be made [within the agency's budget]."